Friday, September 2, 2011

My stint in Rural India - My two cents

As part of my Grassroutes fellowship road trip ( Special thanks to Deepak for informing me about it :-) ), I traveled to Sangli, Maharashtra. Although it is nowhere near a Bangalore or a Mumbai, it is moderately well developed. The district of Sangli has a taluk named "jat" (pronounced as zath) which in turn has 147 villages under it. The villages are drought hit and have hardly any water available. There are approximately 3 lakh people living in these villages."Jailhal" is one of the 147 villages.
    When I first reached Jalihal, I was astonished to see the lifestyle of these people. To me, it seemed like I had travelled back in time. They had no electricity all throughout the day, still used bore-well pumps, travelled on cobbled roads , had drains running right in front of their homes, and had no sense of basic hygiene. Girls as young as 13-14 were married! I felt like I was reliving history. My first thought was - “Oh my God!”. Here is a link to a short photo essay which has more information on the lives of these people.

After settling in and interacting with the village folk for a few days, I felt that from a point outside their frame of reference, they were in equilibrium. They seemed happy and contented.Their income was enough to satisfy their needs and small desires. “Oh my God!” was now replaced by “I am here to do what exactly?”
When I entered that so called ‘perfectAtlantis’, I found that there was so much inequality and unrest. More than anything else, it was the gender inequality that hit me in my face. It is as if the voice of the womankind is non-existent. Women were nothing more than home makers and had no right to anything, not even education. Young widows were not allowed to re-marry. They stayed financially dependent all their lives. Young people (boys and girls) lacked even basic exposure; their goals for life were so narrow. Moreover, people seemed extremely reluctant to come out of their comfort zone.
Looking at the many young widows (20+ year old), I was terribly disheartened. I asked the village folk – “why do you not let them marry again?” They replied – “It is against our Sanskar (culture)”. I had expected something such as that. I shot back at them with - “define culture”. They said “something that has been followed by our elders for years”. I was stunned. I was disappointed with the answer! I retorted -“Sanskar is something that makes the lives of people progressive and better and not something that makes the lives of people miserable” Their response “You have come here for a month. See around and have fun!”
The way this conversation ended is something I can never forget. For the first time in my life I felt defeated. No amount of arguments from my side seemed to convince them because in the first place they did not want to get convinced.I then thought to myself - “I have so much to do here.”

 It took a few more days to develop a good rapport with the villagers. They seemed to notice my confidence and leadership. Young girls and womenfolk would look forward to meet and talk with me. The older women felt - “If onlyI had the opportunity to study.” 

 It was at this point that I knew my golden opportunity had come. All I had to do then was make them realise what their daughters’ lives are going to be like if they did not educate them now. Some women seemed to agree with me and have decided to educate their daughters. This alone, I believe was a victory for me. It made me happy!They understood that there is a big world outside which is progressing every second. They realised that they must not let themselves be left behind.

 Another striking thing I noticed was the difference in our definitions of education. For instance, a city girl like me was totally alien to grazing cows, treating scorpion bites, handling snakes and the like. I never knew that the milk from the leaf of a plant can get the poison from a scorpion sting out. It was basic chemistry – concentration difference! Every kid in the village knows this. There was also a difference in how we evaluated people - a person who manages his farm, earns money, looks after his entire family (which includes many elders because the lifespan around these villages is more than 100) and teaches his children to be as responsible as he is, is well respected and considered cultured. I come from a background where a person’s status is determined by the number of significant digits in his/her salary.
What they fail to notice is that, through education one can learn how to manage all the above in a better way. For instance, keeping lakhs of money at his home is useless. Education makes him understand that investing in a business or keeping the money in a bank is profitable and ideal. Instead of two bulls he can use a tractor to make his life easier. He can implement sub soil irrigation instead of cribbing about less water and bad crop. It is their inertia or reluctance I must say that makes them shy away from education. This is what I consider ‘ignorance’. Being contented is good, but being complacent is not.

Education, of the sort that we city students undergo, is not necessarily the means to a high-paying corporate job only. After all, the purpose of formal education is to initiate a student into becoming a seeker of knowledge. It is so that the students are taught how to think.
My experience has also made me realise their lack of knowledge about microfinance. They do not seem to understand investments and profit/loss. The solution again is good foundation – Education.

I feel that there is a lot that needs to be done in rural India. Changing the way they see life is something that is really hard. It is a deep rooted problem which will need patient work. The saying “Rome was not built in a day” is apt here. The people here need to be taught to claim what is theirs from the government. They need to understand that they deserve more. We should kindle their desire for “more and better.”

I intend to share more of my experiences on my blog soon...